Our Cessna was 5 minutes north of Maun, Botswana, when the landscape changed dramatically. Gone was the dry savanna scrub that had defined the Kalahari and so much of Botswana. In its place were the unmistakable signs of water. Although we were in Botswana during the low water season, some rivers and waterholes persisted throughout the year. And in the areas where the water had receded, we could see the fractal-like hippo highways and other signs of its seasonal presence.
It wasn’t long after this change in landscape that we saw our first herds of elephant. While we had seen the occasional sign of the lone elephant during our time in the Kalahari—a footprint here, some droppings there—we were finally seeing these majestic creatures. Not just a single herd, but many, on either side of the plane, along with cape buffalo, giraffe, and hippo, the sorts of large mammals that could be spotted from so high in the sky.
The presence of all these animals was a reminder that water is indeed life. This could not be any more apparent than here in Botswana. After three wonderful days in the Kalahari where we witnessed those animals that can survive in a water-starved near-desert environment—lions, gemsbok, cheetah, and springbok, to name just a few—we were now entering a virtual Garden of Eden that was bursting with life.
A half hour later, after we had landed and crossed the river into Xigera Camp, wildlife was everywhere. A woodland kingfisher flew across the river to herald our arrival, red lechwe wandered the beach below the boardwalk, and baboons and vervet monkeys scampered through the campsite. Tree squirrels skittered about as I walked back toward my tent, a skink darted along a tree, and a family of warthogs awaited me on the ground just below the boardwalk at my front door.
And then there were the elephants, which we saw on our first game drive at this camp—and so often throughout the rest of the trip, both at Xigera and Qorokwe. Males and females, young and old, the elephants entertained us every day of our trip. The year-round water in the Delta attracts the elephants, making this region critically important for their survival.
In fact, the Okavango Delta is the beating heart of KAZA—the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area—the largest transboundary conservation area in the world, encompassing parts of five countries: Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The size of France, KAZA holds half of Africa’s elephants, with approximately 225,000 found in the region. And Botswana holds the majority of these, with 130,000 elephants in and around the Okavango.
For KAZA to be successful—and for all those elephants to receive the coordinated protection they so desperately need—there have to be sufficient economic incentives for the people of the region. Trips like this are helping to meet this need, providing good jobs to local people through sustainable tourism enterprises. In every camp we visited, I spoke with the staff and heard this story over and over again. So, not only was my life transformed by this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but I came home knowing that, through my travel, I was contributing to the survival of Africa’s elephants. What could be more empowering than that?
By Jeff Muller, WWF